Other Free Encyclopedias » Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern Fiction » Encyclopedia of Literature: Harriet Martineau Biography to John McTaggart (John McTaggart Ellis McTaggart) Biography

W. Somerset Maugham (William Somerset Maugham) Biography

(1874–1965), (William Somerset Maugham), Liza of Lambeth, Of Human Bondage, The Hero, Mrs Craddock

life left published war

English novelist, short-story writer, and playwright, born in Paris, the sixth and youngest son of the solicitor to the British Embassy. His adored mother died of TB when he was eight years old, and the trauma of the event apparently stayed with him until his own death at the age of 91. Following the death of his father two years later, Maugham was sent to live in Whitstable, Kent with a middle-aged childless uncle and aunt. The sudden uprooting and change of language and lifestyle left the young Maugham lost and miserable, a state which worsened when he was sent to King's School, Canterbury, where his stammer caused him much pain and embarrassment. In 1891 Maugham spent nine months in Heidelberg, attending lectures at the University and enjoying his first taste of freedom and intellectual excitement. In 1892 he enrolled as a medical student at St Thomas's Hospital, London, and although he concentrated on private reading and writing, he succeeded in qualifying. He never practised as a doctor, but his experiences delivering babies in the slums of Lambeth were put to use his first novel, Liza of Lambeth (1897), the story of a Cockney factory girl whose romantic ambitions lead her to a hopeless relationship with an older married man. The grim realism of his portraits of slum life showed the influence of Zola. Relying on an income of £150, left to him by his father, Maugham then travelled to Seville, returning after nine months with a travel book and the first sketch of what would become Of Human Bondage (1915). For the next five years Maugham lived in London and wrote without any great success. He published several novels, including The Hero (1901), Mrs Craddock (1902), and The Merry-Go-Round (1904). He also continued to write plays and A Man of Honour was produced in 1903 by the Stage Society. Maugham moved to Paris and lived a bohemian life in the company of painters and writers, a period of his life he was to recall in The Moon and Six-pence (1919).

In 1907 Maugham's fortune turned when his play Lady Frederick, put on as a last-minute stop-gap at the Royal Court, turned out to be a huge success. Within a year, Maugham had four plays running simultaneously in the West End—Lady Frederick, Jack Straw, Mrs Dot, and The Explorer. For the next thirty years, Maugham produced fashionable comedies of manners, and well-made plays with a gentle irony. The best of these are The Circle (1921) and The Breadwinner (1930).

In 1911 Maugham left the theatre temporarily to write Of Human Bondage, correcting the proofs while serving as an ambulance driver in France during the Great War. In 1915 he was recruited into Military Intelligence, and sent to Geneva; when his tour of duty ended, he travelled to the USA and then to Tahiti in the company of Gerald Haxto, his long-term companion and secretary. On his return, despite the blossoming of his relationship with Haxton, he married his mistress, Syrie Wellcome. Recruited once more into the Secret Service, Maugham travelled to Russia. After the war, Maugham continued to travel and write. The Moon and Sixpence (1919), an exploration of the creative genius, based on the life of Paul Gaugui, confirmed his reputation as a novelist, and headed the long list of works inspired by the author's travels in the South Seas. The Trembling of a Leaf (1921) was his first, highly popular collection of stories of the Far East, and The Painted Veil (1925), a story of adultery and redemption, was set in Hong Kong. In 1927 Maugham and his wife were divorced and he went to live in the Villa Mauresque on Cap Ferrat, the narrow peninsula between Nice and Monte Carlo. This beautiful and luxurious villa, filled with works of art, was to become one of the Riviera's great pilgrimage points, where social and literary celebrities were entertained in Maugham's exacting style. On the gatepost was inscribed a Moorish device against the evil eye which his father had brought back from abroad, and which appears on the covers of the uniform edition of his works.

In 1928 Ashenden, the cycle of stories based on his war experiences, was published. The urbane narrator, Willie Ashenden, became a kind of alter ego for Maugham and reappears in other writings, including Cakes and Ale (1930). This witty and moving novel was followed by a stream of successful but less exceptional publications which, like so much of his work, pleased the public but not the critics. Despite his unrivalled position as the most popular and financially successful writer of his time, Maugham never enjoyed critical acclaim. His middle-brow label adhered, due in part to a verbal predictability and shallowness of characterization, but also perhaps to his unrivalled readability.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, Maugham left France and stayed in the USA. During this time The Razor's Edge (1944) was published, and filmed in the following year. In 1946 he returned to the Villa Mauresque. Gerald Haxton had died in 1944, and his place was taken by Alan Searle who would stay with Maugham until his death. The author's later life was enlivened by the making of film versions of some of his excellent short stories, Quartet (1948), Trio (1950), and Encore (1951), introduced by the author in person. He was made a Companion of Honour in 1954, and in 1962 he published Looking Back, a volume of memoirs which contained a vindictive and pointless attack on his deceased ex-wife, and which lost him many friends.

User Comments

Your email address will be altered so spam harvesting bots can't read it easily.
Hide my email completely instead?

Cancel or